With defense dominating the game in the late '90s, stars have fewer opportunities to shine. When the Celtics won the title in '85-86, Bird, McHale and Parish averaged 45.9 shots among them, roughly half the Celtics' total. Last year Barkley, Olajuwon and Pippen also accounted for about half the Rockets' field goal attempts, but their combined total was only 38.5 shots per game. "In today's NBA, where most teams walk it up and down the court and the coach calls every play from the side, there aren't enough shots to get three players 15 shots a game," says Nuggets G.M. and coach Dan Issel.
The Pair Postulate applies regardless of positions. The Spurs won with two big men, the Knicks nearly won with two guards, and the Jazz have reached the Finals twice with the classic inside-outside pairing. One thing that does seem to be necessary is for the twosome to be clearly subdivided into a leader and a second banana. (That's a sorting-out process that the New York guards, who came together in the postseason after center Patrick Ewing's Achilles tendon injury, will still have to go through during this season.) Certainly, the Duncan-Robinson pairing would not have worked had Robinson not agreed to defer to Duncan at the offensive end. It is the sort of sacrifice that neither O'Neal nor Bryant seems willing to make in Los Angeles, even if Rice weren't around to complicate matters.
Not everyone agrees that less is more. West, who was a member of one of the great threesomes in NBA history when he was a Lakers guard with center Wilt Chamberlain and forward Elgin Baylor, still prefers a trio (even though he won his only championship, in 1971-72, with Baylor sidelined). "I just think the way the game is played today," he says, "you've got people double-teaming on defense all over the place, trying to take the ball out of more than one player's hands. I'd rather have more good players than role players."
Some also would argue that although they had only two bona fide stars, teams such as San Antonio and New York would not have gone as far as they did without the emergence of dependable third options—Sean Elliott for the Spurs and Marcus Camby for tire Knicks. To be sure, having a top twosome doesn't guarantee a long playoff life. Washington tried to build around Webber and forward Juwan Howard three years ago and went nowhere. The Jazz, with the quintessential two-man nucleus in Stockton and Malone, simply could never get past the Bulls and flopped in the first round several times.
With the adoption of rules changes that leave the league on the verge of another stylistic shift, will the three-star system be more effective again? The game should be opened up, and scoring should increase as a result of some of those changes: stricter interpretation of fouls, especially physical play away from the ball; prohibition of forearm checking, except below the free throw line; a five-second rule limiting the amount of time an offensive player with his back to the basket can control the ball below the free throw line; and resetting the shot clock to 14 seconds instead of 24 on certain stoppages of play. That in turn may allow the offensive pie to grow enough for three or more players to again divide it to their satisfaction. If that happens, a team such as the Lakers, with their triangle offense and coach-psychologist Phil Jackson (page 82), may prove that a pair of leading men are no longer sufficient. Or the Blazers may show that raising stars to the fifth power is an equally valid championship formula.
Until then the next champion is likely to be a team with a pair of stars shining against a backdrop of smart, self-sacrificing role players. There is still no team that fits that description as well as San Antonio, which is why the Spurs may have another twosome to be proud of by season's end—a pair of championship rings.